January 22, 2024
KATHMANDU – India’s relations with the Maldives have dipped in the past two weeks. It all began with the derogatory tweets of three Maldivian deputy ministers on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the Indian island of Lakshadweep, which he promoted as “full of many possibilities”. Like the Maldives, Lakshadweep possesses scenic beauty, but its tourism potential remains untapped.
President Mohamed Muizzu suspended the ministers for their comments on the Indian premier as New Delhi summoned the Maldivian ambassador and expressed displeasure. Social media was flooded with comparisons between Lakshadweep and the Maldives in terms of their touristic attractions as one of India’s major travel aggregators, Ease my Trip, announced they would no longer book trips to the island nation amid the trending social media campaign #boycottMaldives.
India topped the list of tourists visiting the Maldives in 2023, followed by Russia. The country also surpassed the 2022 total tourist arrival figure by an estimated 78,537 people. Muizzu, in his presidential inaugural address last November, placed a high priority on tourism, a top revenue generator. He also said Maldivian debt stood at an all-time high at 119 billion rufiyaa.
Reinstating China in the Maldives
Muizzu was on a state visit to China from January 4 to 12, 2024, which he termed his first bilateral visit since his presidency although he had visited Turkey in December 2023. During this trip, he signed around 20 “key” agreements and requested China to send more tourists to the Maldives to reclaim its top position. The bilateral relationship was elevated to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. The Maldives is now one of 28 countries with such agreements with China and is among 25 neighbouring countries that have signed the Belt and Road Initiative.
One detailed paragraph in the joint statement is devoted to Taiwan. The Maldivian pledge for a one-China policy shows how China is rattled by the recent election in Taiwan, which brought back a pro-freedom party. Some Maldivian media outlets equated the rise of President Muizzu, who won the election in November, to the Chinese system, in which President Xi Jinping held many positions before becoming president.
In the context of the India-Maldives row, China, in a ritualistic manner, said it respected “national sovereignty, independence and national dignity, respects and supports the Maldives’ exploration of a development path that suits its national conditions, and firmly opposes external interference in the internal affairs of the Maldives”. Under Muizzu, the Maldivian relationship with China is projected as a benchmark of its independence and sovereignty. An article published in October 2022 in the Sun, a Maldivian newspaper, praised the virtues of the Maldives cultivating close ties with China.
The actions of the Maldives are not surprising. The Progressive Party of Maldives-People’s National Congress coalition, headed by President Muizzu, won on an anti-India platform. A recent European Union report suggests that extensive anti-India sentiment was used, and a misinformation campaign was carried out to whip fear regarding the country’s Indian military personnel. Immediately after his election, Muizzu said, “Using the instrument of diplomacy, I will ensure that this country has no foreign military presence on its soil.” The withdrawal of Indian forces also constitutes a top priority for his government.
In a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Muizzu in the United Arab Emirates, it was decided to form a high-level committee to discuss bilateral matters. The committee’s first meeting was held on January 14 in Male. Some newspapers wrote that Male had asked New Delhi to withdraw its military personnel by March 15 and replace them with civilian staff.
Accusing the previous Ibrahim Mohamed Solih-led government of being directed by a particular country, Muizzu spoke to the press on his return from China and said, “We aren’t in anyone’s backyard. We are an independent and sovereign state. We may be small, but that doesn’t give you the license to bully us”. Many believe this remark was an insinuation against India, which is close to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Beijing’s October 2023 foreign policy outlook outlined, “China will work with regional countries to manage regional security affairs with a coordinated approach”.
The Maldives challenge notwithstanding, India’s approach has been to develop strong ties—a work in progress that recognises domestic politics and contestation within a country. India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said, “Politics is politics. I cannot guarantee that in every country, every day, everybody will support or agree with us”.
Can the Maldives ignore India?
India gave the Maldives $50 million in 2018 and $100 million in 2022 in budgetary support. Similarly, India gave the Maldives $1.5 billion in economic assistance in 2018. Since 2019, India has implemented 18 cash grants totalling 106,860,706.86 rufiyaas, with 255 million rufiyaas in grant assistance for 47 High Impact Community Development Projects. In the current fiscal year, India’s grants constitute 1.5 percent of the budget of the Maldives. India is also the third-largest trading partner of the Maldives.
According to the International Monetary Fund Staff report of November 2023, China is the largest external creditor. Twenty percent of the total public debt, or 42 percent of the total external public and publicly guaranteed (PPG debt), is attributed to China, with the Chinese Exim Bank holding 11 percent of the total.
China has trained 1,500 officers of the Maldives National Defence Force, and both countries are part of a trilateral defence dialogue now known as the Colombo Security Conclave, though the Maldives did not attend the last meeting in December. The politicisation of the withdrawal of the Indian troops, who are basically trainers, will also affect the evacuation of its citizens needing critical medical care. The suspension of the mutually agreed hydrographic survey only adds to the deteriorating relationship.
Given its location, the Maldives holds a significant position in the emerging Indian Ocean geopolitics. It has many suitors. Muizzu government’s attempt to play the old China card deftly used by Abdullah Yameen to keep India and Western countries away was expected. The economic trouble that the Maldives seeks to redress through tourism will face challenges. A perceived hostile domestic population injected with nationalism and anti-India propaganda does not augur well for the economic health of the country as India tops the list of tourists and is a longstanding development partner.
One may see a spike in anti-Indianism as the Maldives holds the Parliamentary (Majlis) election on March 17. The opposition, the MDP, considered close to India, currently holds the majority and is likely to give a tough fight. Recently, the MDP won the Male mayoral seat. Muizzu would require a majority in the Majlis to implement many policies, including the “India out” tagline of his campaign.